Defending Roger Goodell, the NFL's Great Autocrat and Savior of the Status Quo

Michal GoldsteinCorrespondent ISeptember 30, 2012

Sept 5, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE
The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE

It is impossible to defend Roger Goodell without feeling or sounding like some sort of corporate homer or boot-licking schmuck.

He is the embodiment of some of the worst tendencies in big business, the face of a massive bureaucracy, and the Teflon front-piece of a problem-laden product of the entertainment industry. He has been described by turns as dictatorial, coldly calculating, narcissistic and endlessly asinine.

And everyone knows—or at least claims—that he couldn’t care less what you think about him. Because he is Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, the steward of its shield and the man responsible for the continued prosperity of the last thing Americans seem to cherish as a national treasure.

I. Mounting the Goodell Defense

Roger Goodell deserves no pity for the almost universal frustration his presence evinces. He does himself no favors by behaving like the czar of some borderless nation of billionaires and their seasonal employees.

But like any man put on trial in the nebulous, arbitrary court of public opinion, Roger Goodell does deserve a good defense.

Where the man is often judged on his public persona—adrift, aloof, hard, waspish—he should be judged on the function of his work performance and the extent to which he meets the goals set forth in his duties as the commissioner of the NFL. America has always been willing to trade on likability for success.

And by almost any pertinent measure, Roger Goodell has been a successful head of the National Football League.

This is a dubious claim coming off the heels of the NFL’s most litigious summer. Bountygate seems to have negatively affected teams, but not established any sort of precedent for eliminating what, at times, seems like a phantom array of criminal activities perpetrated by players who have been steadfast in their own defense.

The NFL Referees Association “negotiations” ended when both sides conceded, “Well, we can now see why it’s best for all of us to get back to what we were only doing moderately well in the first place.”

And the league is still being sued by a growing number of former players who have asserted that playing football has a negative impact on one’s intellectual bearing and neurological health.

But over the course of his still-young tenure as the NFL’s prime executor, Roger Goodell has managed tendentious situations dealing with all of the league’s primary stakeholders: players, fans, owners, media conglomerates and, more recently, the league’s referees.

Startlingly, even impossibly, he has managed to move them into a lockstep march that will continue the NFL’s profitability and sustained dominance over all other forms of comparable entertainment in the Western world.

He has secured a collective-bargaining agreement with the league’s players that will keep them playing for the next decade without a chance of another work stoppage. He has secured contracts to keep the NFL on national television throughout greater parts of the week over longer portions of the year.

He has given fans what they want: greater access to all parts of the league in all of its forms, from the days of the draft through the Super Bowl and even into the offseason. Most recently he bullied the referees back into their old posts after a prolonged and strained period of negotiation that was by turns embarrassing and offensive for those on both sides of the table.

Undeniably, in almost all of these scenarios, the league came out on top, placing itself in a position of greater leverage for the future.

Moreover, whereas football has been lamented to have lost all of its credibility, to have become a farce and the integrity of its great institutions to have been besmirched, my strong sense is that the NFL will simply continue to grow. There is astonishingly little evidence that anything from the first part of this NFL season will be long-discussed even heading into the second half.

Oh, to be sure, we will look back on the year of the replacement referees and think, “What a crock!” But we’ll do so much in the same way that we look back on the years when the league replaced actual players.

It is rather astonishing, isn’t it, that in the weeks when the NFL’s biggest fans carped and bemoaned the state of the league’s referee-dom, no one even mentioned that the league has survived greater farces and logistical problems?

But sports fans are blessed with short memories and an impatience to move forward. Which, somewhat oddly, is exactly what Roger Goodell peddles in best. Want proof? The NFL will continue to run like the moneymaking machine that it is for the next decade without a work stoppage, without a cessation in media coverage, without the slightest bump in the road.

And it’s all because Roger Goodell is a jerk who you don’t like.

II. The Case of the NFLRA Negotiation and Resolution

The NFL referees can’t win. They have to please coaches on the sidelines. They have to please players. They have to please the NFL. They have to please home-team fans. They have to please visiting fans as well.

These groups all have different interests. They all have different views. They all want different things. And as Bill Cosby once noted, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Given that their sole responsibility on the field is to mediate a child’s game played by millionaires, perhaps it seemed unreasonable earlier this year that they wanted higher levels of compensation. A pension. More job security. Little prospect of being replaced if they performed poorly.

The old NFL referees seemed a little more Oliver Twist than Mr. Smith when the latter went to Washington, requesting apparently unearned promotions.

At the time, the NFL’s negative response seemed somewhat rational. “You guys can’t call the games properly now,” the organization seemed to say. “Why are we going to raise your pay and give you full-time benefits?”

I think back on popular responses to American umpires in recent years. They have been critiqued for their enforcement of laws, for the slowness of replays, for the apparent oversight of certain rules in some situations but not others. They have been roundly castigated for inconsistency and lack of speed. They have often been accused of interfering with the way the game, any game, should be played.

But the NFL referees—and any umpires in general—also represent and stand at the crossroads of an insurmountable problem.

While their job performance might be inconsistent (sometimes maddeningly so, in the most public of venues), referees have no easy or effective way of becoming better at their jobs. This isn’t because live rule regulation isn’t a learned skill. Rather, the sort of live-action rule regulation that occurs in front of 50,000 people and before a televised audience of millions is not an exact science.

Each year, the rules become more complex. The game changes on a need-induced basis. And the referees stand at the fulcrum of the NFL functioning properly as a sport while facilitating what entertainment value the sport provides.

In short, the NFL referees were never going to win points for excellence, validation or popularity. At best, they can hope to be ignored—or appreciated by the few fans who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s ins and outs.

Referees are in the peculiar position of enforcing obscure and sometimes confusingly delineated rules while maintaining the sort of order, fluidity and consistency we football watchers not only enjoy, but apparently crave. 

So how do you improve the job performance of a group of highly specialized individuals who want to be better compensated for a job that most people, on a week-to-week basis, don’t think they do very well?

You don’t.

How can you make them better at their jobs?

You can’t.

Well, can you make them seem better, even if only by proxy?

Yes. Yes, you can.

Enter the scabs. 

III. The Solution

I’m not certain if it was the league’s intention for the replacement referees to underperform so badly that the old referees would look like zebra-striped demigods of athletic justice. It seems like a risky gamble if that was the plan. But this surely has been the most evident outcome: Viewers want the old refereeing crews back on the sidelines and between the numbers.

In all likelihood, there has never been a point in human history when referees or umpires were pined for so publicly and with such vehemence, especially given how derided they often have been in recent seasons. For every compliment that Ed Hochuli’s biceps might garner, his rulings have been equally scrutinized.

But now that we've seen the performance of replacement referees—who have overseen games at a whole mess of different levels, from college to Canadian—we know the old referees were an unappreciated blessing.  

I am not sure how anyone could have predicted just how poorly games would be officiated—or how statistically unlikely it would have been that on back-to-back nights, poor calls would result in teams winning on their last play in regulation.

I’m equally uncertain that anyone could have predicted just how badly taken advantage of the replacement referees would be. It was like watching a full school day during which a substitute teacher has to oversee a bunch of rowdy 16-year-olds.

The old referees, we learned, carried a gravitas that both coaches and players respect. We also learned that even the most restrained and respectable coaches and players will game the system given half a chance. There was a certain hilarity in watching the Harbaugh brothers berate officials monitoring their respective football games, all the while weaseling unfair advantages as the quarters passed.

And though many games overseen by the replacement referees went on without comment or notice—for instance, Atlanta’s 3-0 start has been unmarred by poor officiating—those instances where there were problems were deemed laughable, if not egregious.

Now that the replacement refs have been replaced by the originals, our way of life that is bounded to Sundays, Mondays and now Thursdays can continue in the stable knowledge that the world will not tilt off its axis due to a poorly timed bad call at the end of a non-playoff game at the beginning of a season when nothing, really, is on the line.

IV. The Visionary Policy: Show Everyone the Alternatives and Embrace the Status Quo

Roger Goodell is, rightfully and wrongfully, catching all the flak. He has all the power of a dictatorial monomaniac in the most American of all sports. And though he often wields his power as if it were a bludgeon, Roger Goodell is a master politician.

That doesn’t mean he’s a nice guy. It doesn’t mean he’s going to butter you up and kiss your kid’s forehead and wave to the crowds. It means he’s going to find ways to fulfill his position’s mission.

So how do you make fans and players, owners and employees understand that the NFL is strong, its brand is sound, its content secure and its position set? Show them the alternatives. The most recent case involving the referees is an apropos example.

The negotiations that brought back the original referees were long and intense, and well-documented by a number of sources. Oh, to be sure, we will be disappointed by the old-new refs within a year’s time, complaining that they too have been inconsistent, that they too have been lax, that they too have been complacent, slow and incompetent.

But at least we know the other options now. And, man, does the existing state of affairs look terrific.

This is, perhaps, Roger Goodell’s primary gift as the NFL’s great handler. Not so much that he will revolutionize the sport, improve it or even hope to positively affect anything about it. Roger Goodell is a master of hammering down opposition such that all will bow down to the status quo as if it were a godsend.

Why? Because the alternatives really are worse. And football is an arbitrary game with complex rules in which we indulge with ludicrous seriousness.

The players and owners are going to march into a standoff that results in a lockout? Fine. Let’s see how well the NFL’s industrial engine handles the absence of the sport itself.

A network doesn’t want to agree to contractual terms with the NFL and broadcast its games at a ludicrously expensive differential? So be it. The league will find someone else to play the games. Or, the league will simply air games on its own network.  

Fans want to complain about the quality of the game? Fine. Go watch baseball. Go watch basketball. Go watch hockey.

Oh. Wait. When basketball entered into a lockout and a shortened season, no one much noticed. Is anyone flinching now that hockey is entering into a prolonged work stoppage?

And baseball, America’s former favorite pastime. I have a vague memory of Opening Day in 2010 when one team opened the season against another…no, wait. I remember wall-to-wall coverage of Donovan McNabb being traded from Philadelphia to Washington while he napped at his summer home in Arizona.

Think about that for a moment. A sleeping, in-decline quarterback is shipped from one end of the NFC East to another, and that event received more media coverage than the start of the MLB season. In April. A full five months before the NFL’s regular season started.

These concurrences might have been brokered under the influence of a megalomaniac. They were also brokered under the iron guidance of a man looking 10 years down the road and seeing that the only thing that can stop the NFL are the mongering fools who form the engine of the NFL’s profits: you, me, the players and the owners.

Roger Goodell isn’t out to save football from itself or irrelevance or any other negative state. Events that are watched by hundreds of millions of people and generate billions of dollars in revenue don’t need saving. Roger Goodell is out to make sure football is able to continue to moving forward like the behemoth that it is.

You might not like Roger Goodell, but the only reason the NFL will function as it does over the coming years is Goodell’s machinations and forceful stances on difficult issues. If you look at every issue that Goodell confronted this year, the NFL came out on top.

Sure, fans won because the season will continue as we wish it to.

Yes, players won because they will continue to play a safer version of the game and be guaranteed medical coverage long after their careers end.

And, of course, owners won because they’ll continue to make gobs of money.

Referees won, too, in the end.

But really, Goodell won. And that’s because the terms of the debate were never about Goodell being right or wrong, or Goodell winning or losing.

The frame from which Goodell operates is one that seeks to expand the prosperity and profitability of the NFL. And in that, no one has succeeded more than the commissioner.  As long as he continues succeeding where others before him have stumbled or not lived up to their potential, he will remain as the commissioner of the NFL.

And you will all rejoice. 


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